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Chapter 17:

Grant as a Presidential candidate.

I have already shown Grant's original aversion to politics. Immediately after the close of the war, the attention of the country was turned to the great soldier as a probable candidate for the Presidency, but to him nothing could be more disagreeable than the thought. Probably no man has ever been mentioned for the place who was more unwilling to accept the honor. He was plain and unassuming, for all his elevation, entirely satisfied with his position at the head of the army, and gratified with his personal popularity. He had received no training in politics, and possessed no aptitude for the career; he disliked the ways and arts of politicians, and preferred his soldier friends and his reputation as a soldier to political associates or political fame. He knew, too, that he must lose some of his popularity when he became a candidate, must give up much of his ease and offend many of his friends when once he entered office. Besides all this, he had tasted the bitterness of poverty, and he was now placed beyond pecuniary anxiety, while, if he became President, he must relinquish the income of $22,000 a year that was settled on him for life. He had little to look forward to afterward, no resources to take the place of those he would lose; and he was still young,—only forty-three when the war closed. He considered all these circumstances, and he told me afterward that he looked with positive apprehension at the probability, which by degrees [142] was converted into a certainty, of becoming a Presidential candidate.

When he was first approached on the subject he resented the liberty and repelled all discussion of the theme. I have often seen men who hoped to draw him out receive very mortifying and unexpected rebuffs. They would make, perhaps, an elaborate little speech, devise a snare into which they thought he must certainly fall, invent a bait that must tempt him to talk; but Grant would simply look at them with no expression whatever on his face, and say not a single word. If he had uttered anything at all they might have continued or renewed their wiles, but this absolute silence was the most embarrassing answer possible. It not only entirely baffled them, but was merciless in its way. They stammered and blushed, no matter how bold or adroit; then they attempted to change the subject, and invariably, before many minutes, took their leave. Sometimes, as the door closed, Grant would look up at me with a quizzical expression that showed he enjoyed their confusion. For a man unused to the stratagems of peace he was the most skillful and the most successful in these repulses I have ever seen. His interlocutors never returned to the charge.

But the course of Johnson made it incumbent at last on the soldier to accept the political situation, however unwelcome. The people whom he had led in the war naturally looked to him to guard what he had won, and for a year before the actual necessity for decision there could be no mistaking the signs. Still Grant lived in the hope that the necessity might be averted. He would not admit to himself that he must take up the new role. The approach of the crisis awoke no ambition in him. Indeed, the spectacle of Johnson dishonored, impeached, almost deposed, was not calculated to make one who stood so near at all eager to become his successor. The struggles whose inner history Grant knew so well, the troubles with Cabinet Ministers, the distracting [143] fears and anxieties of Johnson, perhaps the fate of Lincoln,—all conspired to dispel the illusions which men further off might entertain. Grant saw for himself that the lot of the President was a hard one; and I do not believe he ever admitted to his own heart before the final rupture with Johnson that he would accept the nomination for the Presidency.

This repugnance doubtless helped him to conceal so long his differences with the President, and made him submit to more from Johnson than he otherwise would have endured. Then, too, Grant saw not a little in the conduct of Congress and of individual members of the Republican party which he did not commend. Of course, with the general policy of the party he was in accord, but he disapproved many particulars and disliked many men that, as a candidate, he must in some sort indorse. Besides all this, he had many admirers and some warm personal friends among the Democrats whom he was unwilling to lose, and the influence of his wife's family, which went for something, was decidedly hostile to the Republican policy and sentiment. Thus he deferred to the last moment taking the decisive step.

But when he wrote the letter that defied the President he identified himself with the President's enemies. The country looked upon the step as signifying his willingness to be recognized as Johnson's antagonist. Johnson himself at the time, and even afterward, hoped to be the nominee of the Democrats. He was at this moment acting in unison with them; his only friends were of their party; he was their representative, and though he did many things that many Democrats disapproved, they were forced as a party to uphold him. Thus when Grant was thrust into a position of personal and prominent hostility to Johnson, the Republicans claimed him and rallied around him. He knew himself that the die was cast.

He was nominated by acclamation at Cincinnati in May, [144] 1868. Stanton carried him the news. I was with Grant at his own headquarters when the Secretary of War entered the room. I had never seen Stanton there before, but this time he did not send for Grant. He came hurriedly up the stairs panting for breath lest some one should precede him. He had obtained the first information of the vote, even in advance of Grant, and as he rushed in he exclaimed: ‘General! I have come to tell you that you have been nominated by the Republican party for President of the United States.’ Grant received the intelligence as he did every important announcement of his life. There was no shade of exultation or agitation on his face, not a flush on his cheek, nor a flash in his eye. I doubt whether he felt elated, even in those recesses where he concealed his inmost thoughts. At that moment I believe he was sorry to leave his position in the army, and disliked as much as ever the prospect of new responsibilities and unfamiliar cares. But of course, when he was in a fight he desired to win, and since his name had been placed before the public with his tacit sanction, he would have been disappointed had he not received the nomination. Of that, however, there had hardly been a possibility. The next night he made his first political speech, in answer to the public announcement of his nomination. The address was entirely unprepared, like almost every speech he ever made, but I took it down at the time. It was in these words: ‘Gentlemen, being entirely unaccustomed to public speaking, and without the desire to cultivate the power, it is impossible for me to find appropriate language to thank you for this demonstration. All that I can say is, that to whatever position I may be called by your will, I shall endeavor to discharge its duties with fidelity and honesty of purpose. Of my rectitude in the performance of public duties you will have to judge for yourselves by the record before you.’

With all his modesty Grant was conscious of his own character. He felt the weight of the services he had rendered, and dared to allude to them without humility. [145]

Indeed he had been told so often that he was indispensable at this crisis that he might be pardoned if he believed it. He thought at any rate that he was as important to the Republican party as the party was to him. He had not wanted the nomination and the party had wanted the prestige of his name at the polls. He was not now grateful to the party, for he believed that if the party leaders could have done without him they never would have nominated him. And it is true that he was not the choice of the leaders, who doubted his political ability and distrusted even yet his political fidelity; he was forced upon them by the rank and file. Stanton, Chase, Greeley, Sumner—all would have preferred a purely political man. Grant knew this.

He refused from the first to take any active part in the campaign. When the trial of the President was concluded and Congress adjourned, he set out for his little home in Galena to get away from arrangements and conferences. The party managers were very much annoyed by this course. Nearly all his friends thought it unwise, and those who were intimate enough advised against it. He was now, they said, the chief of the party, and its important members desired to consult him continually during the contest. But he replied that he did not wish to consult them. He had lent his name, but he would take no part, give no advice in the struggle. He went off as far as he could from the turmoil, and directed that his letters should not be forwarded to him, nor even opened. Grant, indeed, at this time, meant to keep himself untrammeled by pledges not only about place, but even about policy. He had some idea of being the President of the people rather than of a party. He became absolutely a politician afterward, but only this idea will account for much that was extraordinary in his course, both during the canvass and even after the election. He had no thought of being untrue to those who supported him, but he had not sought the nomination, and he felt himself more free on this [146] account; and he meant to keep himself so. This is not a surmise of mine; it is what I have heard him declare.

When he went to Galena I remained in Washington writing a pamphlet history of his life, to be used in the political canvass. He knew my occupation and approved it, so that he was not after all indifferent to success nor to the means to insure it. He simply did not wish to use these means himself in this campaign. He wanted to feel that he had not striven for his own elevation.

When my work was complete, he wrote me the following letter:

Galena, Ill., August 18, 1868.
dear Badeau,—As I have concluded to remain here till about the close of September, I think you had better open the letters that have accumulated in Washington. Such as are on official subjects refer to Rawlins. All others do with as your judgment dictates, only do not send any to me except such as you think absolutely require my attention and will not keep till my return. If you are not otherwise more agreeably engaged, I think you will find it pleasant here for a while and then to return with me. I have also written to Comstock to come out if he feels like it. The family are all well.

Yours truly,

Accordingly, I opened the hundreds of letters that had been received since his departure, answered those that required answers, and took a dozen or more with me to Galena. There I remained until the election, for Grant did not return to Washington before November. In all this period only one or two of the political people of consequence ventured to write to him, but many letters were addressed to me the contents of which were evidently intended for my chief. Of course, I laid all these before him, and my answers were governed by his wishes; but he still refused to advise, much more to dictate any of the strategy of the campaign. E. B. Washburne and Russell Jones were the [147] only politicians of note who saw him often during the canvass; but they were his intimate personal friends and in his confidence in many ways. Rawlins remained nearly the entire summer at the East. He wrote rarely, but was in constant communication with the political managers. He was without orders or express sanction from Grant for this course, but Grant knew that Rawlins was acting in his interest, just as he knew that I had written his history for the campaign. Comstock, one of the aides-de-camp, was also at Galena, but he abstained scrupulously from politics. He prided himself on being a soldier, pure and simple.

Two instances of Grant's persistent determination not to become a partisan I can now recall. General Frank Blair was the Democratic candidate for the Vice-Presidency, and in his speeches made repeated and offensive reference to Grant, pronouncing him a military despot, a tool of the politicians, etc., etc., etc.; but Grant refused to resent the language. He had been a warm personal friend of Blair and excused the heat of his expressions in a political campaign, though there were many military and political associates of each who thought these expressions unpardonable; for Blair had received advancement and recognition from Grant, and was thoroughly conscious of the purity of Grant's intentions. All this made no difference in their personal relations; and when Grant first met Blair after the canvass was over, he received him as cordially as ever.

The other circumstance relates to Sherman. Many of Grant's friends thought that an expression of sympathy from Sherman, the utterance of a wish for Grant's success, would have great weight with Sherman's old soldiers, as it certainly would have had; but Sherman was determined to keep himself entirely out of practical politics. He had sympathized with those who held that the South should have been allowed to return under milder conditions; and he was unwilling to say one word to imply a contrary feeling, even in [148] favor of Grant. His silence provoked some caustic criticism from many who were anxious for Grant's election. But it never affected Grant. He respected Sherman's individuality; he thought Sherman had a right to his own views; he was sure of Sherman's friendship; and Sherman's reticence in no way lessened Grant's confidence. Yet I believe that Grant was anxious for the utterance which Sherman withheld, both as a matter of feeling and because he knew the weight it would carry. He was disappointed when the expression did not come; but I heard him defend Sherman for not giving it. Their friendship stood this test also.

During the political campaign Grant went about the country very little. Once he visited St. Louis and once Chicago, but he stayed at the houses of intimate friends or relatives and avoided political demonstrations. There was a political meeting in Galena, but he was not present. His mornings were passed in reading and answering letters, or giving me directions or information for such as I was to reply to, though he often said: ‘Say nothing to that. If you do not answer, the letter will answer itself.’ He was always clever, and sometimes adroit, in his reticence.

He read the newspapers closely, and discussed public affairs, even the chances of the election; for with all his taciturnity, and all his apparent inaction, he would have been profoundly mortified at defeat. In the afternoon he drove or walked, paid visits to his old friends about Galena, sat in their offices and warehouses, and took tea with their families in turn. He had many transient visitors, and entertained them in the same simple fashion to which he had been accustomed before his greatness; perhaps with a more liberal hospitality but with as little ceremony.

On the day of the election I accompanied him to the polls, where he voted for Washburne for member of Congress; and indeed cast his ballot for the entire Republican ticket, except for President. He was a citizen of Galena when the war broke out, and had not lost his franchise. [149]

At about ten o'clock in the evening he went to Washburne's house, not far from his own. There arrangements had been made to receive the news; wires were laid to connect with the office of the telegraph, and by these the messages were to come which would announce the name of the next President. There were in the room a dozen or more of the citizens of Galena, one or two correspondents of Republican newspapers, and a few political people, but except Washburne none of national importance.

Every man present seemed more excited than he whose stake was greatest of all. He did not pretend to be indifferent, but he would have displayed a greater anxiety if a friend had been the candidate. Once or twice the news was less favorable than had been expected, and sometimes there seemed a balancing of the chances, but I often saw him show more interest over a game at cards than on that night when the Presidency was played for.

Finally, between one and two o'clock the returns were sufficiently definite for us to congratulate him on his election. Then we walked up the hill to his own modest house, and standing on the door-step the President-elect of the United States addressed a little company of between fifty and a hundred citizens and friends. He was unelated in spirit, calm in bearing, and simple in speech, and uttered nearly the same thoughts as on the night when he had been nominated. I was very much struck with one expression which was afterward repeated in his inaugural address. It seemed to me eminently characteristic of the man and appropriate to the occasion, though it was destined to be harshly criticised. ‘The responsibilities of the position I feel, but accept them without fear.’

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